The Florida Project

Florida Project

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Sean Baker’s gorgeous “The Florida Project” skitters and scampers like the attention span of its tiny protagonist Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a six-year-old wonderer/wanderer who lives with her mom in a sketchy motel imaginatively named the Magic Castle. Situated on the fringes of Disney’s Orlando empire, the Magic Castle houses many souls who may be down but are not entirely out. Resident manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) is the caretaker who takes care — a decent human being often acting as the enterprise’s Saint Christopher, watching out for the itinerant, temporary inhabitants who pay their rent in cash.

Baker expands on the mesmerizing qualities he brought to 2015’s “Tangerine,” his breakout feature that transcended the buzz of being captured entirely on a trio of iPhone 5s smartphones. This time, the eye-popping 35mm motion picture photography by Alexis Zabe heralds the saturated muchness of Moonee’s point of view. Along with the novelty architecture of Orange World, Twistee Treat, and the tourist trap souvenir shop adorned with a massive wizard, the vivid landmarks that populate “The Florida Project” reflect the make-your-own-fun curiosity that is juiced more than a little bit by the lack of adult supervision.  

In an interview with Max Cea for “Salon,” Baker’s longtime collaborator Chris Bergoch explained that he pitched the movie’s premise to Baker after he spotted “kids playing whiffle ball in a motel parking lot, at the edge of the busy highway” while on his way to visit his mother in Kissimmee, Florida. Bergoch, who co-wrote and co-produced “The Florida Project,” recognized the juxtaposition: children unable to afford the Magic Kingdom were experiencing an equal amount of merriment. That spirit translates to the movie: in one hysterical scene, “punished” Moonee and her friends take just as much pleasure cleaning up a vehicle as they did spitting on it.

“The Florida Project” is one of the best films of the year, and in their roundup of top titles for “Vulture,” critics David Edelstein and Emily Yoshida echo the sentiments expressed by Bergoch: an “insistence that joy, no matter how fleeting, be accessible to everyone regardless of socioeconomic status.” Bobby’s unflappable stoicism never veils his genuine concern. In one scene, he chases off an interloper who exhibits a potentially predatory interest in the Magic Castle children, but Bobby is equally committed to the welfare of his guests in the day-to-day grind of broken ice machines, power outages, and police visits.    

Deep into the film, when things are looking particularly bleak for Moonee’s mom Halley (Bria Vinaite), Bobby claims that he doesn’t want to be Halley’s father. As the limits of Bobby’s benevolence are challenged, “The Florida Project” builds to a sensational climax. A brilliant piece of editing and story construction that begins with a simple shot of Moonee in the bath is equaled only by the film’s astonishing final minutes, a guerilla-style, fair use exclamation point that for some viewers will call to mind “Escape from Tomorrow.” Baker’s ends, however, speak to a different agenda, and “The Florida Project” joins the list of great movies in which the innocence of childhood crashes into the hardships of growing up.   

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